Two, for the first time the influential students’ organisation and pressure groups the AASU and the AJYCP will contest the elections next year. They plan to merge and contest around 100 Assembly seats out of 126. For years, both groups have spearheaded the cause of Assamiya regionalism. Their militant activism defined the course for more established political parties. Both formations have consistently punched above their weight as pressure groups, even without contesting the polls. Most members of the Asam Gana Parishad (AGP) the first regional party to break the Congress monopoly of ruling in Assam, came from the AASU or the AJYCP. So did a few leaders of the banned separatist organisation, the ULFA as well.

These developments certainly add further grist to the already complex political scenario in the sensitive border state. In many ways, Assam remains India’s most representative state, embodying in itself a multicultural population mix. People in Assam follow different religions, speak a multitude of different languages, each ethnic group following its own distinct rites and special customs. The inter-ethnic relationship is usually competitive and at times, confrontational. Ancient tribes with deep roots see even the majority Asamiyas as early migrants. There has also occurred significant Bengali Hindu and Muslim migration from erstwhile East Pakistan during recent decades. Once used as a source of cheap agricultural labour, Bengali Muslims and their descendants are a bone of contention between the centre and the majority Asamiya population/tribes.

The rationale for the state level proposal for an INC/AIUDF alliance is easy to understand. Such a alignment will end up winning much of the Muslim votes in Assam. Muslims account for around 35% of the state’s population of 320 million. Most report their mother tongue as Asamiya in Census operations, to escape acute official discrimination/harassment. Bengali speaking Muslims have emerged over the years as a bigger group than indigenous Asamiya Muslims.

In common perception, the AIUDF, set up in 2005 but really taking off in 2009 is a party representing Muslim interests. Its founder, Badruddin Ajmal MP has always taken care to be on the right side of the Asamiya establishment. Thus the party stands fiercely opposed to migration from Bangladesh. Yet, there is little doubt however in public mind that most the AIUDF’s votes come from the officially targeted migrant groups. It is palpably strong in areas of Assam where large numbers of Muslim immigrants have settled over the years.

Back in 2016 when the last Assembly polls were held, then Congress Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi had strongly nixed a proposal to fight in alliance with Mr. Ajmal’s party. He tried to keep the Congress in and the resurgent BJP out. He failed. And this, say his critics, has made him wiser and accept the idea of a face saving alliance now. Ironically the idea for such a formation had been cleared by INC leaders Sonia Gandhi and Mr Pranab Mukherjee, among others. But Gogoi saw the AIUDF as ‘communal’ at the time and emphasized the iNC’s strongly emphasized the INC’s secular credentials, which consistently earned it the near total support of linguistic as well as religious minorities. .

In 2020, forced to sit in opposition by the steadily growing BJP, Mr Gogoi has made a 180 degree turn. Now he is a leading proponent of the proposed alliance with the AIUDF, which he defends ‘in the larger interest of Assam’.

Such cryptic remarks conceal the strong communal overtone that defines the pre-election scene. Mr. Gogoi, in common with most Congress leaders out of power, does not flourish in the opposition. He is markedly impatient after having been in the opposition since 2016. All over India, the first priority for the INC is to defeat the BJP wherever possible, including Assam. Winning only 52 Lok Sabha seats in 2019, the job of regaining lost ground is by no means going be easy for India’s oldest political party.

However, there is a silver lining: the INC may be ruling in only four states in India including one in alliance (Puducherry). But since 2018, the BJP’s support base too has shrunk dramatically. Within two years, the number of states under its control have dropped from 13 to 8, while it manages to rule in alliance with other parties in another 8 states. In physical terms, the percentage of territory ruled by the BJP has shrunk from around 70 to 34% only.

This naturally kindles fresh hope for the INC and the regional parties. It is no surprise that the INC along with other parties is more amenable to form even dubious alliances provided they help it in achieving its bigger purpose : to defeat the BJP , alone or with help, wherever possible.

The state INC still remains divided on going with the AIUDF, fearing a strong Hindu backlash among Asamiyas and Bengalis. The latter had usually been supportive of the INC over the years, as they perceived the national party as more sympathetic to the plight of the migrants. The BJP batted more aggressively. Especially in the three Bengali-majority Barak valley districts, it wooed and won over the Bengali Hindu vote by implementing the CA Act. The BJP’s gains in 2016 and thereafter was the INC’s major loss in a sharply polarised scenario.

There is little doubt that the BJP will use a strong communally charged message during their pre-poll campaign. Setting the tone, Mr Himanta Biswa Sarma, Minister for Health warns people in meetings that to vote the Cong/AIUDF alliance would result in a Muslim chief Minister ruling Assam for the first time. Their victory would be the first step towards a greater islamisation of Assam as a whole. In a rare gesture from an Assamiya politician, he appealed to people not to see Bengali Hindus as a threat to Assam’s culture. In terms of their sheer numbers, the Muslims were a much bigger, more organised force.

Such statements forced Ajmal to the backfoot. He declared post haste that in case the grand alliance, which would include other smaller parties, won in 2021, he would not seek the Chief Minister’s chair. State Congress president Mr Ripun Bora readily agreed. ‘The AIUDF had always emphasized that the INC would always be the bigger partner in any alliance.’ He said.

Anti alliance leaders were not impressed. After all, the AIUDF had won only 1 LS seat in 2019 as against 3 in 2014. In the Assembly too, its seats had dropped from 13 to 10 between 2011 and 2016. Its percentage of votes won too, had registered a decline from 13 to around 10% currently.

The AIUDF was therefore hardly doing the Congress a favour by admitting its junior status. It needed to pull up its own act first, if it wanted to be in contention as a serious alliance partner.

As for the AASU factor, most observers feel that since the AGP is still in an alliance with the ruling BJP, the vote for the regionalists (whose broad slogan is Assam for Assamiyas) will get fragmented. In the long run this could favour the BJP, strengthening it vis-s-vis the AGP and in the state as a whole.

With such issues being debated strongly, the next few months should prove to be exciting times for Assam.
(IPA Service)